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Melissa McCaw: ‘Broader steering’ concerns ‘never came to my knowledge’

Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw in Gov. Ned Lamont in May 30, 2019 file photo.
Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw in Gov. Ned Lamont in May 30, 2019 file photo.

Melissa McCaw says she saw a bid dispute — and no inkling of scandal — in a contractor’s complaint to her on April 29, 2020.

The contractor, Stamford Wrecking Company, complained that her agency, the Office of Policy and Management, was undermining competitive bidding laws on school demolition and hazardous-material disposal contracts. Specifically, the contractor said, OPM urged the town of Groton to set aside open bidding in favor of hiring from the state’s limited emergency bid list of approved contractors.

The response was delegated to legal staff and McCaw’s deputy, Konstantinos Diamantis — the official in charge of school construction grants.

Today, the Stamford Wrecking complaint made in the spring of 2020 is colored by recent revelations that the FBI is investigating school construction and other programs overseen by Diamantis and allegations by officials in several towns that Diamantis pressured them to hire certain contractors — including one that employed his daughter, Anastasia Diamantis.

McCaw, speaking about the allegations regarding her former deputy for the first time, said the Stamford Wrecking complaint narrowly focused on the propriety of OPM urging the use of a state-approved list for hazardous-material abatement, often a wildly unpredictable expense in school construction.

“What is now coming out in the press, which I’m extremely disturbed by, it’s far beyond that,” said McCaw. “At no point had any municipality or superintendent ever raised to my attention concerns about broader steering. It never came to my knowledge.”

Despite state law placing the function in the Department of Administrative Services, responsibility for overseeing state-reimbursed school construction came from DAS to OPM at her insistence late 2019. It was a condition of Diamantis, the director of the Office of School Construction Grant and Review (OSCGR), becoming her deputy.

Diamantis, a Democrat who represented Bristol in the state House of Representatives for 14 years before losing a primary in 2006, arrived at OPM with a reputation as an aggressive and sometimes caustic bureaucratic infighter. He had been overseeing construction at DAS since 2015.

To accommodate McCaw, the Lamont administration signed off on a memorandum of understanding that temporarily removed OSCGR from DAS and grafted it onto OPM, despite objections by state lawmakers. They saw the move as potentially politicizing state reimbursements that largely had been set by formula.

“The reasons for keeping school construction at DAS were clear,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. “It would not be perceived as a political function, where OPM is far more perceived as a political function.”

Now, the move engineered by McCaw has entangled her in a scandal from which she is trying to keep a distance.

McCaw said Diamantis never told her that his daughter, Anastasia Diamantis, had been hired by a school construction management company that worked on one of the state-reimbursed school projects.

Diamantis was fired as her deputy on Oct. 28 — not by her, but by the governor through his chief of staff, Paul Mounds. That night, Diamantis cast his dismissal as a consequence of his defending McCaw against what he characterized as disrespect towards a Black woman by Mounds and Josh Geballe, the chief operating officer.

The OPM position held by McCaw did not have the same status in the Lamont administration as it did in others. Lamont’s creation of the chief operating officer’s position, then designating Geballe as the coordinator of the state’s COVID-19 response, was a source of tension between McCaw and the governor’s staff.

McCaw never disavowed Diamantis’ characterization of her being disrespected, not in October or in an interview with CT Mirror over the weekend.

“As the deputy secretary, he was privy to interactions and the work of the agency. He saw a lot. He certainly was a witness to what it has been like for me as the first Black female OPM secretary,” McCaw said. “And I’ll leave it at that.”

When Diamantis was fired as deputy secretary at OPM, a political appointment, and retired from his civil service job in charge of school construction rather than accept a suspension, the issue was his role in the July 2020 hiring of Anastasia Diamantis as an executive assistant to Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo Jr.

At the time he hired the daughter, it was later revealed, Colangelo was lobbying the father and others at OPM for help in securing raises for senior prosecutors.

Colangelo filed for retirement on Feb. 9, a week after the release of an investigative report commissioned by Lamont and produced by former U.S. Attorney Stanley A. Twardy Jr. It concluded that Colangelo had not been truthful in his account of her hiring.

McCaw said she learned from Twardy when he interviewed her that Anastasia Diamantis also had been working part-time for Construction Advocacy Professionals, or CAP. Tolland’s school superintendent has said Kosta Diamantis had pressured the town to hire CAP.

McCaw said she has not questioned Diamantis since his departure about the allegations against him.

“I have expressed my displeasure about what I’m seeing,” McCaw said. “I’m the first Black female OPM secretary, and I’ve worked very hard to build my career and to bring significant progress to the state of Connecticut. So obviously I’m not happy at all with what is going on and any perception that it gives to my leadership. And he’s heard that from me directly.”

She declined to directly answer when asked if her view of her former deputy has changed.

“Look, I have built my career on work, ethics, integrity and competence. And what I will say is that I am deeply disturbed by the allegations at hand,” she said. “I’m going to respect the process. I will participate in the process to ensure we get to the bottom of this.”

Diamantis has said any suggestion that municipalities use the emergency list of approved demolition contractors was intended to save money, not assist a favored few.

Emails show OPM officials responded to complaints

Emails recently obtained by CT Mirror show that the Stamford Wrecking complaint was not ignored.

The complaint from Irving Goldblum, the president of Stamford Wrecking, was addressed to McCaw and Geballe, the latter in his capacity as the commissioner of DAS, a job he continued to hold after Lamont also named him as chief operating officer.

Ray Garcia, a lawyer representing the contractor, forwarded a copy of Goldbum’s complaint by an email sent at 1:10 p.m. May 4, 2020 to Gareth D. Bye, the director of legal affairs at OPM.

“May we have a conversation about this before it becomes a full blown formal dispute,” Garcia asked Bye. “I think the process is not authorized by any statute of which I am aware and circumvents the public bidding statutes generally. But, as I said, I would like the benefit of OPM’s thoughts before we take more formal action, or decide not to take action.”

Bye responded at 2:15 p.m., telling him that Diamantis manages the school construction grants and Kevin Kopetz runs the legal unit that handles school construction issues.

With Diamantis, the OSCGR personnel physically relocated from DAS offices in a state complex on the riverfront in downtown Hartford to OPM’s offices on Capitol Avenue, a short walk from the Legislative Office Building and state Capitol.

Bye copied Diamantis and Kopetz on his reply to Garcia. A conference call with Garcia was scheduled for the next day. Participants in the call said the tone was cordial, with both sides acknowledging the challenges in controlling hazmat removal costs.

“It was great to meet you, even on the phone, and hear your thoughts on school construction. In many instances your views are identical to mine and I come from the Contractor’s side of the industry,” Garcia told Diamantis in a follow up email. “I look forward to meeting you in person and as I said I am always willing to help out, speak and come and listen or furnish research or otherwise participate at any level of government to to make our great industry more responsive to the biggest user of construction services.”

But Garcia and his client did not change its view that open competitive bidding was required for the work, whatever the motivation for taking a shortcut of allowing municipalities to hire from the emergency bid list, which had only four contractors. Garcia eventually was assured the policy would be clarified.

On Dec. 23, 2020, Goldblum wrote again to McCaw and Geballe, as well as to Kopetz and Manchester Mayor Jay Moran, with a new complaint that Manchester was using the emergency bid list instead of open competitive bidding hazmat work at Buckley Elementary School.

“It is our belief that the State of Connecticut, through OPM, has directed that Manchester skip the public bidding requirement and utilize the emergency response list,” Goldblum wrote.

On Saturday, Dec. 26, Geballe emailed Diamantis, asking him to address the concerns raised in the letter. Copied on the email were McCaw, Kevin Kopetz and Bob Clark, who then was the governor’s general counsel.

Diamantis wrote to Goldblum on Jan. 27, 2021, denying OPM had directed Manchester to skip open bidding.

On Feb. 2, 2021, Garcia asked Attorney General William Tong to intervene, saying his client had information that OPM directed municipalities to hire contractors off the limited emergency bid list for at least six school construction projects.

“We objected to that for several specific projects and OPM has advised us that it stopped the practice,” Garcia said. “However, we have been advised that OPM now advises municipalities that the State will not reimburse the municipality for certain work unless the municipality utilizes a contract off the State’s emergency asbestos abatement contractor list.”

The governor’s office said a clarification issued on March 2, 2021 by Diamantis resolved the matter to the satisfaction of Garcia’s client. McCaw also said she was advised by legal staff that “those matters had been addressed through the collaborative work of the AG’s office, DAS, OPM counsel and the former director,” Diamantis.

Garcia said that assessment was incorrect.

“We disagree with the Secretary,” Garcia said. “We continued to raise our concerns to the AG’s office and the governor’s office through correspondence and meetings. We believe tens of millions of dollars have been steered to one contractor by use of this practice, notwithstanding the policy.”

Garcia said they have information that the emergency list was used in lieu of open competition in New Fairfield, New London, Manchester, Norwalk and Bridgeport, in addition to other municipalities mentioned in news stories.

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